Birth of a Whistle-Blower

An interview with Laura Poitras, director of the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour about Edward Snowden.

| Summer 2015

  • Edward Snowden (left) talks with journalist Glenn Greenwald in a scene from Laura Poitras' documentary "Citizenfour."
    Photo courtesy of the filmmaker
  • "Citizenfour" director Laura Poitras.
    Photo courtesy of the filmmaker

The strange trajectory of Edward Snowden—the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who went from being an obscure Ron Paul enthusiast with pronounced libertarian leanings to one of the world’s most prominent whistle-blowers and a perceived threat to the American government and its ever-burgeoning surveillance state—presents an irresistible opportunity for filmmakers. One of the most remarkable aspects of Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ celebrated and Oscar-winning documentary on Snowden’s “self-outing” as a whistle-blower, is its resistance to facile pigeonholing. Almost every critic and commentator has mentioned the film’s resemblance to a Hollywood thriller.

Although Snowden, who initially is merely embodied by encrypted email messages on Poitras’ computer (the “citizenfour” of the film’s title), eventually surfaces as an appealing protagonist, the film’s canniest maneuver is to delay his appearance by introducing an array of personalities who share his belief that the NSA’s surveillance program has moved on from focusing exclusively on suspected terrorists to making every American with a computer or cell phone a potential target of invasive snooping. Poitras makes clear that a small constellation of activists paved the way for Snowden’s revelations. During an extended prologue, William Binney, a former NSA employee who became a victim of the government’s wrath after revealing the agency’s plans to monitor average Americans’ internet searches in the wake of 2001, is shown to be as intransigent as Snowden in his opposition to Orwellian surveillance. Jacob Appelbaum demonstrates how a few simple transactions by New York City subway riders—the purchase of a transit pass with a credit or debit card—can produce “metadata” that allows authorities to track a traveler’s every move. Since erroneous conclusions can be derived from the accumulated data, the scenario suggests a possible realization of the late science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s notion of “pre-crime”—the arrest of individuals for crimes not yet committed.

When Poitras, accompanied by journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, finally catches up with Snowden at Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel, he rails against “modern media” and its focus on “personalities, not the story.” By opening the film with a procession of Snowden’s allies (as well as ominous glimpses of America’s largest “spy center,” an NSA outpost in Bluffdale, Utah), and delaying the appearance of the “star,” Poitras honors her subject’s desire to avoid the vacuity of celebrity journalism.

Despite our awareness of the outcome, genuine tension ensues when Poitras, Greenwald, and MacAskill camp out in Snowden’s hotel room and prepare to reveal his identity to the international media. There is a palpable sense of paranoia as Snowden, who fears that the room may be raided at any moment and the hotel phones could be used as surveillance devices, covers his laptop with a blanket in order to prevent access to the computer’s camera and forestall detection of highly sensitive documents. He also chides Greenwald for failing to formulate passwords complex enough to evade being deciphered by the powers that be. On the one hand, it’s arguable that adhering to these procedures might transform us all into potential paranoids. Alternately, it’s equally reasonable to conclude that these simple precautions will become obligatory as the very notion of privacy becomes a quaint remnant of the past. Those who believe they have “nothing to hide” are sadly mistaken.

Rather oddly, one of the most shattering moments in Citzenfour occurs when Poitras interrupts Snowden’s saga to refamiliarize us with footage of President Obama denouncing “Mr. Snowden” and assailing notions that the whistle-blower might be deemed a hero. While most of us remember Obama’s platitudes, it’s disturbing to hear them once more within the context of a film that affirms Snowden’s basic decency and earnestness. Some skeptics, of course, remain unconvinced. In the previous incarnation of The New Republic, Yishai Schwartz scoffed at the depiction of Snowden in Citzenfour and branded him a “lawbreaker” and a “liar” who “perhaps” is “Putin’s useful idiot.” Snowden’s own calm lucidity, on the other hand, places him within a long tradition of dissidence, perhaps best characterized by one of the concluding sentences of Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience”—“There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.”

Cineaste interviewed Poitras about a month after Citizenfour’s theatrical release last fall. For a director who has been continually detained and interrogated by federal agents at American airports and feels more confident working abroad, she proved surprisingly optimistic and seemed convinced that principled dissent might well eventually triumph over the encroachments of the American surveillance state.

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